The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Discipline
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I don’t want to write this post. I have half a dozen reasons—some of them very good—as to why. First, my chronic illness has flared this week, so I’m struggling against my health. Second, Thursday is one of my annual days off, and I usually post the Guide on Thursday. If I were working a regular job, this day off would be on my calendar—and would have been since before I was hired. Third, I am moving my office and it looks like this week is D-Day for the desk, computer, printer, and calendar, the very things I use to write 95% of the time.
Those are the good reasons. Here are the whiney reasons: First, my office cat died two weeks ago. I really don’t like going into my office when she’s not there. Second, I gave up my non-fiction career for a reason twenty-three years ago. I don’t like writing nonfiction. It’s work. Fiction, on the other hand, is fun. Third, I’ve been doing this Guide for a while now and it’s no longer new (or as my husband would say, it’s not bright and shiny), so it’s become a chore—something with a deadline that must be met, instead of something I look forward to doing.
I might admit the whiney reasons to friends. But here are the final reasons, the ones that come up when I’m tired and not feeling well, like today. First, I’d rather be reading. (Honestly, I’d always rather be reading.) Second, I want cake. (That’s Thursday.) Third, I want to watch the news. And get e-mail. And go on Twitter. And surf the net. And, and, and….
I don’t want to be sitting in my empty office, groggy from a nap that only left me feeling marginally better, writing part of a book that isn’t under contract and might never be.
So why am I here?
Because I anticipated this day. Seriously. I knew this day was coming. And I planned for it.
Here’s why I’m sitting in my empty office, groggy from a nap that left me feeling only marginally better, writing part of a book that isn’t under contract.
I have met my deadline on the Freelancer’s Guide every week since April second. I post, you make comments and e-mail me. Some of you have donated to the Guide, and some of you have subscribed, so I have a very real obligation to hit the mark, week after week, until this project is done.
That’s the main reason. In fact, that’s the only reason I’m here this week.
That reason negates all the complaints I had in the first paragraph.
But the complaints in the second—the ones I call the whiney reasons—have come up before. And despite the fact that two of them sound project-specific, they’re not. They come up, with different rationales, with every single project I work on.
I would always rather start a new project than work through the middle of another project. And the Freelancer’s Guide is in the muddy middle. How far into the middle, I can’t tell you. I can never estimate easily how much material I have left.
And honestly, some of that depends on you. The questions are getting fewer and farther between. Either I’m answering them or you haven’t thought of them yet. But the more questions I get, the longer the Guide will be.
Finally, I love beginnings. Not the actual moment of work, which can be hard as I try to figure out how to approach the project, but grooming the idea and preparing it for the actual writing. That bright and shiny part of writing is appealing to me, and I always have more than one project going just to keep that bright and shiny part of my brain occupied.
I work well at the end of a project as well. Gone are the days when I’d just skip the end (I got tired of Dean looking at me and saying, “You skipped the last 10,000 words again”). When I know how something will end, I want it finished, and I work harder to get it done so that I can move onto the bright and shiny new thing.
I’m not anywhere close to that on the Freelancer’s Guide.
Then there’s the daily battle against “I want to read” and “I want to eat” and “I want to see a movie/news/TV.” The battle against “I want to be doing something else, something that sounds fun, because right now, this project isn’t fun.”
Or as I usually say to someone who complains on television (and dammit, they can’t hear me), “Wah.”
Discipline gets a freelancer past all the complaints, but it’s not the discipline you imagine from all those movies about military school or from watching Tiger Woods interviews about his dogged determination to be the first on the course and the last to leave.
Discipline gets the job done, as Malcolm Gladwell noted in his controversial book, Outliers. The musicians who put in more practice hours have more success than those who put in fewer hours. Same with athletes, and same with writers and almost everyone else in the arts. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spent more time on the campaign trail in their initial successful Presidential bid than any of their opponents did—both in hours per day, and days per week.
But how did they do that? How do some musicians, playing the same instrument with the same intensity as other musicians, manage to hit the practice room more often? Why does Tiger Woods work harder than every other professional golfer on the course—especially since he says, quite frankly, that it’s the hours of practice that make him the golfer he is.
Let’s stick with Tiger for a moment. My husband used to be a professional golfer, so golf is important to our household, and Dean has more insight than most about the sport. We’ve watched Tiger since he won the U.S. Amateur competition in the 1990s. Dean told me then that this kid would be a phenom, and he is.
More than a decade later, Tiger Woods can rest on his laurels, but he doesn’t. He won the U.S. Open last year, playing for four days with a destroyed knee and a cracked bone. Golf days last six hours or so, and golf, for those of you who don’t play or follow the sport, hurts knees more than any other part of the body because of an unnatural twisting motion that the golfer must make when he swings.
It takes discipline to go to that course every day, in extreme pain, but you see it not just in Tiger Woods, but in most athletes at the pro level. It’s so bad in most professional sports that teams have doctors on stand-by to order a badly injured player off the court/field so that the injury will not become permanent and career ending.
What causes this attitude? Sportscasters call that “heart,” but it’s more than heart. We’ve all seen high school players with heart, players who will give their all when the time comes to win the big game.
But it’s not the big game that matters. It’s the practice. It’s sitting down to play scales for the 50,000th time because you need to warm up your hands before getting to Mozart. It’s the drudgery of the same thing every day, with no defined ending.
It’s the ability to overcome the urge to grab the bright and shiny and interesting to finish what you’ve started.
It’s—and I’m sorry to say this, folks—it’s what gets you to your day job five days per week, fifty-two weeks per year.
The problem is that most people don’t apply that same discipline to their freelance work. There are reasons for this, which I’ll get to. And, before the comments come in, let me add that I do realize that most people at a day job are not working at their best. Maybe they never do as well as they could. Many never reach their full potential. Most don’t even try.
So what is it that makes some people work hard at their freelance careers while others work hard enough to get by or can’t figure out a way to work at all?
It’s not discipline. It’s figuring out how to get yourself to work.
Seriously. What gets most people to their day jobs isn’t the job. It’s the money they get from the job, money that lets them pay the bills and support their family. Sure, a handful like their work, but most like the paycheck and benefits better.
Here’s the problem: there are no paychecks and benefits when you work for yourself. If that’s your motivation for working, then you’re not going to have much luck freelancing—providing you carry that motivation into your freelance work.
Let’s boil it down a bit more. When you begin freelancing, you do it for the love. Often you wait for the muse or until you get an order or if a friend asks for your help with something that you’re good at. Eventually, you make some money at this, and then you realize you might be able to make a living at it.
Already bad habits have formed. You start doing this as a hobby, after everything else of importance gets finished. It feels natural to do the freelance work last.
Other things are always important. Your daughter skins her knee, the phone rings, a friend needs help moving. You have to learn to make your hobby or the thing you did only when you “had time” become your first priority.
How do you do that?
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you. What you need to do is specific to you. There is no magic bullet, no one-size-fits-all answer.
But let me give you some ideas, based on my own experience.
And as I typed those words, I heard my writing friends giggle. They are all convinced that I’m the most disciplined person they know. They’re wrong. In most things, I lack discipline entirely.
Unlike most of my writing friends, I have not held a full-time job for years. Why? Discipline. At some point, the paycheck isn’t enough for me. I hate having someone tell me what to do, and that always triumphs.
Even the radio job which I loved didn’t last long. I quit four separate times. Each time the station hired me to be interim news director at my insistence. I didn’t want the permanent job. So I stayed until someone new came on board, and came back as interim director when that someone new left. I remained at the station in between as a volunteer, working a few nights per week. But I didn’t want to be an employee there. The only thing that broke that years-long cycle, by the way, was my move out of town.
Discipline has always been a major issue for me. I get bored easily, and I don’t play well with others. So hiring a personal trainer, for example, would never work for me. I would do my best to circumvent anything the trainer told me.
In my forties, I had a piano teacher. I stayed until I learned how to play the instrument adequately. Then I realized I was seeing how much practice it actually took to convince the teacher I had spent days at it instead of an hour or two. Once I fooled her a few times, we were done.
This is why I never became a musician. I didn’t have the discipline. And I love music. At one point in my life, I played 15 different instruments. (Only two of them really well.) I just don’t love music enough to conquer my discipline problem.
I love writing enough to work through each issue as it comes up. How? By figuring out what stopped me from getting a day’s worth of work involved.
Each time I solved one issue, another cropped up. Then I would have to solve that one. This pattern continues to this day.
When I discuss this with students, I tell them that gaining discipline is a series of mind games. Your mind will find good and effective ways to stop you. You have to figure out ways around them. The old cliché about when a door closes, go through a window applies here.
I can sense the frustration among you now. I’m not being specific enough to help. So let’s go back through my initial points, above, and I’ll tell you how I get around them. Maybe that will strike a chord.
First, health issues. I wrote an entire section on this. Find it here. But in short, here’s what helps me. I imagine making my excuses to a boss. If a good boss would let me go home sick or encourage me to stay away from the office, then I stay away from the computer. But if I can put in a day of so-so work, I do. I store up projects for days when my illness is present, but not so bad that I have to spend the day in bed. Those are the projects I do when I’m not feeling well.
Second, my annual days off. I have a few of them—birthday, anniversary, Christmas, and a couple of others. If I don’t take those days, I’m angry at myself. Sometimes I take an entire week around it. That’s just reasonable for any job. See the section on vacations here.
Third, moving my office. I haven’t done that for years. It’s a good excuse not to work, except that I have deadlines, just like you would at a day job. I had to figure out a way to work while I’m in the middle of this transition. Because if it’s not this transition, it’s another transition. Life is full of them, and you have to figure out how to put in your freelance hours, even while everything changes around you.
But those are bigger events. It’s the small ones that interfere with discipline. Let’s address what I call the whiney complaints.
First, I would rather read. It took me an entire summer to figure out that reading, for me, will suck all my time out of every single day. I cannot start a book with breakfast or I will read until I go to bed.
How did I discover this? I had a day job that went part-time. I opted to take the afternoons off. When the job had been full-time, I read during my lunch break. So I continued this habit on the part-time schedule—and got nothing done.
I tried “disciplining” myself. I would put the book down and try to go to work, only to find myself reading again. “Disciplining”—forcing myself to quit—didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not stop reading, even when I finished the book. I’d move to the next one.
So the key for me wasn’t quitting reading. It was not starting. I set the books aside until I got x-amount of work done each day.
This isn’t easy. It required actual hiding of the books. I enlisted my then-husband’s help, making sure the books were out of sight.
Eventually, I learned that I worked hard and fast if I knew I could read when I was done. I got my work done, and then I read. Problem solved.
It sounds so easy, but it took months of trial and error. No amount of “forcing” myself got me to change my habits. I had to figure out where the problem started, and nip it in the bud.
Second, I want cake. (Don’t we all?) That’s usually a sign to me that I’m hungry. I need to figure out if I’m really hungry or—catch this—bored with what I’m doing. If I’m bored, I think I’m hungry, because that’s one of the few things I will get up from my desk to deal with. If I need a meal, I eat. But my subconscious loves to trick me (and my hips) by convincing me to leave when I’m not through.
Often, the “I’m hungry” reaction comes when I’m working on something particularly difficult or something I don’t want to do. Again, it took many months (and too many calories) to figure this one out. Now, before I get something to eat, I ask myself this: Do I like what I’m working on? If the answer is no, I generally stay at my desk.
Note that I do not ask myself if I’m hungry. I’ve already identified hungry, and the answer would be yes. But I figured out that my subconscious has learned a mind game to convince me to get away from the computer, one that makes me think I’m hungry (or craving food, like cake) and gets me to leave when I don’t need to.
We all have mind games like this, and they’re hard to identify. The question should always be: Is work going well? Because if it is, and I’m hungry, I have trouble tearing myself away. If it isn’t, I’ll make up any damn reason to leave my desk.
Third, I want to watch the news, download e-mail, look at the internet, do Twitter….in other words, do something else entirely.
This was almost as bad for me as reading was. I learned to keep my office spare. My computer has internet access and it also has e-mail access. I have shut those programs down. I’ve tossed away all games that were initially on my computer. There is no phone or television in my office. I have a stereo and a radio turned to a classical channel. No news of any kind allowed here.
Why? Because they all distract me. Rather than “discipline” myself to overcome the temptation, I remove the temptation entirely. In order to download my e-mail, I have to go to a different computer, one with an existing e-mail program, and download from there. I need to go to a different room to watch television. I can’t even hear the phone ring in my office.
These were all tough things to learn. The internet is particularly sneaky because you feel like you’re working when you’re online. You are not working—even if, like me, a small part of your business comes through the internet. You’re not doing your core business. I have a number of writing friends who refuse to remove the internet from their computer. Those friends get very little done. All of them have spouses who work, and so the writer doesn’t have to bring in a lot of money. All of them frown at me when I suggest removing the internet from their writing computer.
Everyone has these leaks, as the poker players call it. A leak is something that drains your income, something that has nothing to do with your work. And it’s often something you’re not willing to give up.
You have to learn how to control this leak and make it work for you. And, here’s the tough part: If you can’t control it, seek help. I went into therapy a number of years ago to help with one of my writing issues, something that got in the way of my business. And much as I hate authority, I listened to that counselor, because being a successful writer meant more to me than the leak.
However, had we worked on my discipline issues with music, I probably would have blown off the therapy within weeks. I have never had the discipline there, and I really don’t want it. Not deep down.
And that’s the final issue. If you want a successful freelance career of any kind, you’ll overcome the things that get in your way. You can’t do it all at once. You have to tackle one problem at a time. But you’re willing to work on those problems.
If you’re not willing to solve the problem after years of trying, then you probably don’t want this freelance career (whatever it is) as much as you think you do.
Discipline is not about forcing yourself to improve. It’s about wanting to get better.
That’s the difference between Tiger Woods and all those other golfers. Tiger wants to be the best, and he knows the only way to do that is to work harder than everyone else. But he doesn’t define himself as the best right now. He means the best ever. He keeps Jack Nicklaus’s stats on his wall, trying to beat them. Tiger’s not playing the current field. He’s playing the entire field from the dawn of recorded golf history.
And he’s doing a good job at knocking down the records.
But here’s the key. He’s not doing this for his wife or his kids. He’s not doing it for his (late) father or for golf history. He’s doing it for himself. Because he wants to. Because that’s his goal.
How do you get disciplined?
Here are a few thoughts.
1. Define what you want to achieve. Not other people’s goals for you. Not what your parents want or your spouse wants. What do you want? And how badly to do you want it? Will you die disappointed if you don’t achieve it? Will you feel like a failure? Or will you shrug and move onto the next thing?
2. Make a list of what gets in the way of that achievement. If everything you list comes from the outside, then you have another problem. For example, writers often say they can’t get published because the publishing industry is impossible to crack or they need an agent or they can’t figure out how to submit their work. Those, my friends, are excuses. Other people have succeeded in your industry. Figure out how they did it, and then try it yourself.
By “what gets in the way,” I mean what part of you gets in the way. What are you doing to block your success? How do you change that? Sometimes the change is minor, like asking yourself whether you are really hungry or you are avoiding work. Sometimes the change is major, like the one thing I mentioned (deliberately vaguely) that forced me to go to therapy. I couldn’t change that one on my own—but it was my problem, and I had to find a solution. I just needed help doing so.
3. Change your thought patterns. When you decide to go full-time freelance, realize that your hobby has just become your job. That realization alone will take time. Then figure out how to make your freelance work a priority (see the section on priorities here) in your own mind. Apply patterns from your day job to your freelance work.
Ask these questions:
What made you go to your day job every morning?
What made you stay there?
What made you work on days when you felt crummy?
What made you work on days when you had somewhere better to go?
And so on. Use those answers to design your freelance work.
For example, my husband Dean works hard when he’s under deadline. He has trouble working when he has no deadlines at all. The key for him is to create deadlines—or to get someone from the outside (an editor, usually) to give him a deadline.
I didn’t think I had that issue until I started the Freelancer’s Guide. Then I realized that I never finish nonfiction unless I have a deadline. I don’t like writing nonfiction. I love writing fiction and will do it without a deadline. But the deadline gets me to finish nonfiction projects—my two columns, some articles, and now this.
By meeting my deadline on this Guide every week, I’ve also established something else. I’ve got a streak going. I hate breaking streaks, so that’s motivation to work on weeks like this one, when I could just as easily post a note that the Guide is on a one-week hiatus.
I learned long ago that I have to love what I’m doing to sustain the work. I loved working at the radio station, but hated it when I was in charge. So I kept quitting the paying work to go back to volunteering.
I love writing fiction, so I continue to do it, even when times are tough.
When I need to be disciplined, I have to find the love at the center of what I’m doing. Here’s an example. I have tried to maintain a regular exercise program since middle-aged spread hit in my mid-thirties (thanks in part to that hunger thing, above).
I started with an exercise I love, swimming. But it was inconvenient. I had to drive half an hour each way to the pool. The hours were irregular, and I’d often lose too much work time. So I started riding my bicycle. I enlisted the help of a friend from the gym. I had to meet her a designated time every day. That got me out of the house.
We couldn’t sustain the rides. Then I fell off the bike and broke my arm, the second serious bike accident in my life. (The first, when I was nine, smashed my face so badly, I still have occasional dental surgeries to repair the damage.) I realized that cycling on the Oregon Coast along a highway with no bike lanes (there are none for more than 100 miles) is too dangerous for me.
So I decided to run. When I made this decision, I couldn’t run for a minute without feeling ill. I didn’t like it. I had never liked running. Worse, I got bored quickly.
But I love music. If a song that I like comes on the radio, I crank the volume. If I’m alone in the house, I dance. So I put my favorite CDs on my iPod, and promised myself I could run for the length of one song.
I couldn’t, not for weeks. Eventually I managed. But I wasn’t running because I liked running. I was using that time as an excuse to listen to my favorite music all by myself.
Two years later, I can run for 30 minutes straight. When I feel like it’s time to find a new form of exercise, I realize it’s time to change the music in my iPod. I’m bored with what’s there. I would rather swim, honestly. I would like to be on my bike. But running works for me now. And I’ve become so conditioned to it that last week, when my iPod battery died, I played some music in my head and finished the workout.
Could I do that every time? Hell, no. But I know how to make myself go out for a daily run now—and how to enjoy it. Set the iPod on shuffle and see what songs come up.
It took me fifteen years to find a form of exercise I can do every day, rain or shine, one that I will do. And what gets me out there now isn’t the exercise or the need for it.
It’s the half an hour of music. Which I love.
So the most important aspect of discipline isn’t discipline at all. It’s this:
4. Find the love. Find what you love about what you do, and channel that each and every day. Acknowledge it too. When I finish a run, I check in with myself. Inevitably, I feel better when I quit than I did when I started. I’ve told Dean that, and sometimes he’s gotten me outside by reminding me of it. (I have to tell you, it sometimes pisses me off that I feel better after a run when I felt so crummy before the run.) Celebrate your achievement, even if that achievement is just getting to your desk.
Celebrate with something you enjoy.
I used to celebrate a day’s writing by reading. Then I started editing, and reading ceased to be a reward for several years. In those years, I celebrated with a good movie or a guilty-pleasure TV show. Now I’m back to celebrating with reading.
Which is what I’m going to do now.
Oh, by the way, I’m no longer groggy from the nap, although I still feel under par. I did run today, and felt better afterwards (dammit!). And I got this section of the Guide done, two days early. I’ll post it late tomorrow, which will be one day early. Then I’ll get my day off. With cake.
That’s my reward, along with all the fun things planned for that day.
And that was more than enough to get me into my chair today—even though I didn’t want to be here.